The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Korea is turning up the heat again. Here’s why.

A U.N. soldier, right, and a South Korean soldier stand guard at the military demarcation line separating North and South Korea on Oct. 4. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO — North Korea has ramped up its missile tests this year as it expands its weapons program, conducting 23 launches since January. It has fired at least five rounds of missiles in the past 10 days, including early Thursday, when it launched two ballistic missiles toward its eastern waters, according to Japanese and South Korean officials.

But its test on Tuesday significantly raised the stakes: It flew a missile over Japan for the first time since 2017. It didn’t warn Tokyo in advance. And that missile flew farther than anything previously launched by North Korea.

Missile tests can serve many purposes, including improving technical capabilities and sending a political message, both domestically and globally. They also serve as a reminder of the lack of progress on jump-starting nuclear negotiations with the regime and how Pyongyang’s military capabilities have evolved during the stalemate.

So what’s going on?

Flying over Japan

Residents in northern Japan woke Tuesday morning to sirens warning them of the missile launch. North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile at 7:22 a.m. Japan time, which flew 4,600 kilometers (2,858 miles) for 22 minutes over Japan’s Aomori prefecture before landing in the Pacific Ocean, Japanese officials said. It reached an altitude of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).

It’s not clear what type of weapon it was. Japanese defense officials say it may be similar to the Hwasong-12, which can reach Japan and Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean. The missile may have been an upgrade from the Hwasong-12, given its trajectory and the distance it traveled, according to Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korean navy officer who teaches at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

Why has North Korea stopped boasting about its missile tests?

North Korea has been aggressively testing its weapons in line with leader Kim Jong Un’s five-year plan. Earlier this year, Kim said he would “strengthen and develop” his country’s nuclear and weapons program at the “highest possible” speed.

North Korea typically lofts missiles high in space, which then land in the waters in between the country and Japan to avoid threatening the security of its neighbors. Launching one across Japan may have been intended to make a political point, some experts say.

Why now? Why Japan?

We don’t exactly know what that point may be; North Korea is one of the most closed-off countries in the world, and it hasn’t publicly talked about its missile launches in six months. But there are clues that can help experts understand what message it may be trying to send.

For the past two months, the U.S., South Korean and Japanese militaries have been conducting military exercises designed to demonstrate their readiness to work together in the event of a conflict. While the allies say the drills are defensive in nature, Kim’s regime has long viewed them as hostile acts and used them to justify its weapons development and nuclear program.

After Tuesday’s test, the U.S., South Korean and Japanese militaries launched air, sea and land drills in response.

The United States and South Korea held live-fire drills on Oct. 5 after North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan for the first time in five years. (Video: Reuters)

Security dynamics in Northeast Asia have become increasingly volatile with China’s growing military threats and in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since the invasion, North Korea has drawn closer to Russia, while Japan’s relations with Russia have deteriorated.

South Korea, U.S. begin military drills likely to draw North’s ire

As U.S.-China competition intensifies, China has drawn North Korea closer. South Korea and North Korea have grown further apart, with a new conservative government in Seoul eager to side with Washington and to take a harder line toward Pyongyang.

Given this backdrop, North Korea may see an opportunity to exploit the instabilities in the region and remind a world focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine that it still matters, said Robert Ward, senior fellow for Japanese security studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

China, Russia draw North Korea closer than ever

“The missile launch intensifies the security threat along Japan’s western flank — Russia to the north, North Korea in the center and China to the south. One important strategic threat to watch for is cooperation between Russia-China-North Korea, which amplifies the risk to Japan,” Ward said.

From the North Korean perspective, there are not many flight-path options for a missile with a range exceeding 4,000 kilometers other than the route over northern Japan and toward the Pacific Ocean, said Masashi Murano, a Japan chair fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. The other options would be seen as an effort to strike the U.S. mainland or to reach Guam.

Pending nuclear test

A familiar cycle of escalation appears to be taking shape.

To some analysts, Tuesday’s test was reminiscent of the ramped-up tensions and rapid diplomacy that began five years ago. In August 2017, North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan amid threats from President Donald Trump that he would unleash “fire and fury” if Pyongyang kept ratcheting up tensions with repeated missile tests. The next month, North Korea conducted a nuclear test.

What does North Korea’s new monster ballistic missile test mean?

Again, North Korea is probably gearing up for its first nuclear test since 2017. According to commercial satellite images and statements from intelligence officials, Pyongyang apparently completed preparations for its seventh nuclear test and is waiting for the right political moment to hit the button.

On Wednesday, at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield blamed Russia and China for enabling North Korea and providing “blanket protection” against efforts to update existing sanctions against it.

In response, Russia defended North Korea as reacting to the United States’ “confrontational doctrine in the Pacific region.” The Chinese delegate similarly juxtaposed recent U.S. naval exercises in the area with the missile launches by North Korea and accused the United States of “double standards.”

Both Russia and China called for a resumption of multilateral dialogue over the Korean Peninsula. Denuclearization talks collapsed at the 2019 summit between Trump and Kim — and the Biden administration has been unwilling to grant the sanctions relief that Kim seeks.

Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.